Richardson played college basketball at the University of Texas – El Paso and earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1964. He began his coaching career in 1968. In 1978, he moved to Western Texas Junior College where he won the 1980 National Junior College Championship. In 1981, he moved to the University of Tulsa and won the 1981 National Invitation Tournament Championship.
In 1985, he was hired by the University of Arkansas and over his 17 year tenure led them to the NCAA National Championship Tournament Final Four three times. In 1994, Richardson led Arkansas to the NCAA National Championship, becoming the second black head coach to win the championship, and he was named the National Coach of the Year. Richardson is the only head coach to win the Junior College National Championship, the NIT, and the NCAA Tournament.
In 2008, he was inducted into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame. In October, 2009, Richardson was named head coach of the Tulsa franchise (formerly the Detroit Shock) in the Women’s National Basketball Association, a position he held until 2011. Nolan Richardson Middle School in El Paso, Texas is named in his honor. His biography, “Forty Minutes of Hell: The Extraordinary Life of Nolan Richardson,” was published in 2010.